Rainforests or beach frolics, this region’s got it all, writes Shandelle Battersby.
Strike me pink, Australia is big. And there are parts of it so beautiful they'll take your breath away. Most of Queensland's Whitsundays region, a 90-minute flight north from Brisbane, looks like the backdrop to a Lara Bingle ad.
Stretching from Bowen in the north to just above Mackay in the south, the Whitsundays are one of the main access points for the Great Barrier Reef. The region is best known for its 74 tropical islands - think crystal-clear azure water, beautiful white-sand beaches with palm trees, and ideal conditions for water sports, particularly sailing. Add low rainfall and an average temperature of 29-30C in summer, and what you've got is a tropical paradise.
Although the area was hit hard by Cyclone Debbie earlier this year, many operators have picked themselves up, brushed themselves off, and are back up and running.
You have options here: if you want luxury you can fly right into Hamilton Island, one of the few populated islands in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, which is home to one of the country's top resorts, Qualia. It has been refurbished and is due to reopen in July (qualia.com.au). Or if you're on a budget, the pretty town of Airlie Beach on the mainland, is a mecca for backpackers.
For families or groups who want a little more independence with hotel amenities, there are loads of self-catering options, both on Hamilton Island and the mainland.
Here are a few ways to make the most of a stay in the Whitsundays.
Get on the water
This is what it's really all about in this part of Australia. There are a ludicrous number of activities on offer to make the most of the Coral Sea waters that surround those gorgeous islands, from ocean rafting to jet-skis, and catamarans to tall ships. If you're into DIY sailing "bare boat" charters are available or, if you're more comfortable with someone else doing all the work, check out some of the day or overnight tours. The main tour operator on the water is Cruise Whitsundays (
), which runs ferry services between Great Barrier Reef, the mainland and the islands. Every August there is a series of sailing events, including Hamilton Island Race Week, which attracts elite racing yachts from around the world. This year it is from August 19-26 (
Get in the water
The Whitsundays are home to some of Australia's best beaches, including the much-lauded Whitehaven Beach - 7km of silica white sand on Whitsunday Island, which has no amenities except for a long-drop. If you're on the mainland there are glorious beaches everywhere, and many have barbecue facilities, picnic tables and playgrounds.
At Bowen, 40 minutes' north of Airlie Beach, check out Horseshoe Bay, Grays Bay and Queens Beach or, if you fancy your own private slice of paradise, the self-catering apartments at Rose Bay Resort (rosebayresort.com.au) are right beside a secluded beach.
Be aware that November to May is stinger season, when the tiny Irukandji jellyfish are prevalent. Their stings are rarely deadly but very painful and cause muscle cramps and difficulties with breathing, so wearing a stinger suit is recommended. The chances of running into one are minute, but it's better to be safe than agonisingly sorry.
In terms of snorkelling and scuba diving, you can't get much better than the treasures of the Great Barrier Reef (a three-hour boat ride from Airlie Beach) but, if you're pressed for time, most of the region's beaches have fringing reefs (coral gardens close to the shoreline). You can travel with Cruise Whitsundays from Airlie Beach or Hamilton Island to their Reefworld pontoon, which is on Hardy Reef adjacent to the reef wall. The pontoon is set up with snorkelling and dive equipment and the Cruise Whitsunday catamaran stays tied up to it all day, so you'll have access to loos and the bar. Meals are included and a handful of lucky people can opt for the Reefsleep experience, where you spend the night on the reef in a swag under the stars.
There's plenty to do on land, too. Airlie Beach is backed by Conway National Park, which has tramping tracks through subtropical rainforest. Many of the islands have walks - the best one for bushwalking is on South Molle Island, with 10km of walking tracks. You can camp overnight on many of the islands for just $5.50 per person per night. Other activities include mountain biking, 4WD adventures and crocodile safaris on Proserpine River.
Take to the air
The best way to take in the whole Great Barrier Reef is from above it, and several companies in the region run scenic flights or transfers. Hamilton Island Air (hamiltonislandair.com) offers scenic flights and transfers, the best of which take in Whitehaven Beach and the world-famous Heart Reef - a coral bommie, just 17m wide, which has formed naturally into the shape of a heart. From June to October you'll see scores of humpback whales on their annual migration north.
Hit the highway
From the sugarcane fields in Proserpine to the fruit and vegetable bowl of Bowen, this is fair dinkum grassroots Australia with plenty to see and do. Near Proserpine are Cedar Creek Falls, which have a croc-free swimming hole, and locals speak reverently of Hydeaway Bay, an off-the-beaten-track spot 45 minutes' north of Airlie Beach. Hydeaway is home to beachside self-catering accommodation Cape Gloucester Eco Resort (capeg.com.au), which is scheduled to reopen at the end of June. One way to get there is via a half-hour scenic flight in an Air Whitsunday seaplane (airwhitsunday.com.au). This takes in Whitehaven Beach, Hook and Hayman islands, before landing for lunch or dinner at nearby Montes' Reef Resort restaurant. If you only want to go one way via plane, go by van with Airlie Beach Transfers and Tours (abtt.com.au).
Air New Zealand flies daily to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. From there you can fly into Whitsunday Coast Airport, Proserpine, or Hamilton Island International Airport (90 minutes) via several airlines.